Gil Kenan’s winter fairy tale in the cinema: How Christmas really came about

Nobody knows whether the magical village of Wichtelgrund really exists – but little Nikolas believes in it. He dares the adventurous journey with his mouse Miika. Gil Kenan shows in “A Boy Called Christmas” the importance of hope in dark times and tells the Christmas story from scratch.

What did Santa Claus actually do before he became Santa Claus? As is well known, there are many theories about the origin of the old man with the long beard. There is, for example, Saint Nicholas, who, as the previous figure, gave presents to children during the night without being recognized. Or a few centuries later the beverage manufacturer Coca-Cola, who gave the fat man a friendly smile, a red pointed cap and a white beard.

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Aunt Ruth tells the story of little Nikolas who brought Christmas to the people.

(Foto: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com)

The new family adventure “A Boy Called Christmas” by director Gil Kenan, based on the novel of the same name by Matt Haig, explores the question of how a little boy from Finland became the kind giver with a Christmas hat. If the author is to be believed, it happened like this:

Eleven-year-old Nikolas lives with his father Joel in a wooden hut in the snow-covered forests of Finland. The little family doesn’t have much: father and son share the only room in the hut and Nikolas friendships are limited to a doll that his mother, who has since passed away, carved out of a turnip for him, as well as the mouse Miika, which the boy presents the father’s ax saved. That is what “we did”, emphasizes Nikolas with satisfaction.

“Don’t believe in anything”

That doesn’t seem to be enough for his father. When the King of Finland promised him a high wage if he would bring hope back to the people, he did not hesitate and set off for the far north. It is said that there are gnomes, elves and trolls in the village of Wichtelgrund. Nikolas, on the other hand, stays with his child-hating aunt Carlotta. When this drives the ordeal to extremes, the boy decides to follow his father.

So Nikolas sets off on the arduous path “past the sleeping giants, up the pointed mountain” with his mouse friend Miika on his shoulder and his red pointed cap over his ears. Right at the beginning of his trip, a bitter villager whispered to him: “Don’t believe in anything, especially not in fairy tales.”

If Nikolas had followed this advice, the film would have come to a quick end – and Christmas would never have come about. With this, Kenan and Haig make it clear at the beginning of the adventure journey what it is all about: Hope and belief in the impossible run through history as a guide for a little boy and a ray of hope for a society. A spell of hope from the elves brings the frozen Nikolas back to life and the mouse Miika learns to speak because the eleven-year-old does not give up teaching her. After all, the boy only finds Wichtelgrund through the decisive hint: “You have to believe in it to see it.”

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Faulty parents and hope

The makers of the story let the really big feelings – from said hope to disappointment to grief – collide within a very short time. Even when Nikolas becomes an orphan, Kenan and Haig dedicate just one scene to the grief of the little boy, which is at least irritating, but is definitely wanted by the author. “I wanted to see if it was possible to write a children’s book that is about real things like grief and loss and faulty parents, but that also contains hope, magic, elves and reindeer,” writes Haig about the genesis of the story.

He succeeded in the attempt. In dozens of scenes, the film conveys the message: “You are strong enough to survive difficult times”. With a framework story, Kenan helps the viewer to transfer it to the present day. Old Aunt Ruth reads the saga of little Santa Claus to her three little nieces and nephews from London who have lost their mother. At the end the youngest of them smiles: “Now I understand.”

The visual design of the winter fairy tale was also successful. While the parallel narrated actions alternate, the shadows from the children’s room in London become the characters in the Christmas and pixies story. The vast snowy landscapes at the Arctic Circle convey an equally magical atmosphere as the cast of the film. With Maggie Smith (Aunt Ruth), Jim Broadbent (King) and Toby Jones (Father Topo), Kenan has brought three stars from the “Harry Potter” ensemble on board. Henry Lawfull takes on the role of the modest, but firmly believing in himself Nikolas and Zoe Coletti, the lively truth elf, makes people laugh with colorful crackers.

The annoying truth

It is the many small details that make the story lively and meaningful. The little truth elf can be really annoying because she always tells the tough truth – but in the end she is indispensable and helps Nikolas out of the mess. At the beginning of the story, the human children in the village don’t know any toys – of course, there’s no Christmas either.

Nikolas on his magical journey with the reindeer Blitz and the mouse Miika.

Nikolas on his magical journey with the reindeer Blitz and the mouse Miika.

(Foto: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com)

Director Kenan has skilfully woven these details into the tried and tested principles of fairy tales: there is the escape from the beastly stepmother or aunt, the adventurous journey and the child who understands the world better than the cerebral adults. In addition to many often pathetic dialogues, funny moments are needed, of which the film could well have used more. This is how Miika, spoken by Sascha Grammel, assesses the events in the Wichteldorf full of candy canes from his very own mouse perspective: “I have no idea what Christmas is, but I love it.”

The king’s speech, on the other hand, is more likely to make adults laugh. When he rather rhetorically asks his people what they need, the men and women answer with “health system” and “higher wages”. Basically not a bad idea – but the head of state meant something less expensive than hope.

“Resistance to Mind”

It is hidden social criticism like this that sets “A Boy Called Christmas” apart from other Christmas films and makes it thought-provoking. In a subtle way, director Kenan also manages to integrate topics such as xenophobia and exclusion into his Christmas fairy tale. Since an elf boy was kidnapped by people, the leader of Wichtelgrund has banned everyone from the village. She forgets that you cannot simply divide people and pixies into good and bad.

The leader of Wichtelgrund is not so fond of "intruders".

The leader of Wichtelgrund is not so fond of “intruders”.

(Foto: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com)

Now the “good” elves rebel against their strict leader and her guardian. They hope they celebrate forbidden Christmas parties and reject the word “impossible” on principle. Up to this point everyone could take an example from the consistently optimistic mythical creatures from time to time. However, they are also in the “resistance to the mind”. In times of pandemic and corona deniers, not all of the film’s ideas should be transferred to reality without reflection. It is a tightrope walk between hope as a drive and reason, on which Gil Kenan embarks.

Small inaccuracies are hardly noticeable in “A Boy Called Christmas”, because it is something completely different from what the director and author express: A little boy from Finland overcame the worst and most difficult moments of his life with hope, faith and imagination. He would now like to pass this on – every year on December 24th. This Christmas story, completely retold in around 100 minutes, is worthwhile for the whole family.

“A Boy Called Christmas” will be in the cinema from November 18th.

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